astronaut in spacecraft launches into outer space

Elon Musk & PR’s Existential Moment

WE Communications Blog: Alan VanderMolen

— Alan VanderMolen 

Elon Musk just gave the PR industry a huge kick in the rear end…or, a huge pain in it, depending on your vantage point.

Last week, when Musk pulled a self-described ‘stunt’ by launching his Tesla convertible into space on the back of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, he simultaneously did two things: First, he made the PR jobs at Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactica the two worst jobs in commercial PR. Second, he re-ignited the definitional debate for PR practitioners and their sponsors around the globe.

First, the two worst jobs


How would you like to be the in-house PR or agency PR people for Bezos or Branson or any of their businesses about now? With a simple ‘3-2-1…blast off’ and a push of a button, Elon Musk successfully dominated traditional and social media for himself, Tesla and SpaceX. One stunt has resulted in immeasurable executive profiling, new heights in automotive brand building and an exponential boost in demand-generation for SpaceX and, likely, for Tesla. If I was running or involved in PR for either of the other two billionaire entrepreneurs, I am pretty sure I know what my two-word reaction would have been while seeing the news.

Now, pause for a moment, and imagine the phone call(s) coming in from the boss(es): “How many impressions did Musk get?”  “SpaceX?”  “Tesla?”  “What were the AVEs?”  “How did he do on Twitter?”   “Re-tweets?”  “Likes?”  “What kind of stunt can we pull to get some PR?”  “Should I start brainstorming or are you going to do it?”

So, while the PR folks surrounding Mssrs. Bezos and Branson nurse their headaches and more, the rest of us and our sponsors are simply agreeing: That was great PR.

Second, our existential moment


At a time when the entire industry engages in discussion about the complexity of the media ecosystem and the meshing of paid, earned, owned, social, experiential and search and what this all means for PR, Elon Musk has simplified things for us: PR is great media. PT Barnum is celebrating, while today’s PR practitioners are stressing.

Many factors in recent years have spurred the definitional debate surrounding PR. The rise of owned and social. The emergence of paid social. Market penetration of smart phones and the mobile web. Organic and paid search. I could keep going. The common element in these factors is that they are environmental. They explore the platforms for our craft and they give rise to the need for more exacting science and the development of cross-platform creative. These factors and the debate surrounding them, however, do not get at the core of what PR is and does (in particular vs. other marketing disciplines).

My friends David Brain and Paul Holmes have both written on the definitional topic. After two years of outrage at the Cannes Lions, when advertising agencies dominated the PR category, we saw ‘earned at the core’ emerge as a key criteria for a PR Lion. As a proud and dedicated PR practitioner, this debate still leaves me wanting. While Mr. Musk has squarely put ‘great media’ at the core of ‘great PR’, I still yearn for the higher order purpose of our craft. The outcome-focused definition.

A long time ago, when I was an entry-level colleague at Burson-Marsteller in New York, I was invited to a small lunch with Harold Burson. In that meeting, Harold said “anything that communicates about a company or brand is PR.” I continue to hold onto that definition and widen it to include “anything that drives positive or negative engagement for a company or brand is PR.” Whatever that definition is for you or for the industry, I believe that Elon Musk launched not only a Tesla last week, but also an existential debate for our industry.


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Alan VanderMolen.